BY NIA LINGAM
Stereotypes truly suck. When people see me or my name, they often assume that I am simply “smart.” My entire worth gets condensed into this single, one-syllable word. The stereotype that Asians are always top of everything has been under fire for a while now; however, many of my peers do live up to this standard. Out of the maybe 20 DESI classmates in my entire school, all are juggling 13 AP classes, being leaders of many clubs, starting non-profits, and gaining award after award, internship after internship. It may sound like I am bitter, and actually, I am. In today’s world, kids look to rack up so many achievements before they are even taught to drive. But why? Why am I struggling so much? If I don’t reach this standard, am I right in thinking of myself as “the dumb Indian”? All of these questions stem from the Indian kid stereotype that has plagued our generation for decades.
Ever since I was young, I have always been worried about the "what ifs." What if I don’t go to some private research college with less than a 15% acceptance rate? What if I don’t pursue a STEM job with a high salary? What if I cannot soar above and beyond? Many people say that their parents came to America for a better job and stability. However, when I expressed these ‘what if’s’ to my mom, she said she came to America so I would not have to worry about this type of toxic academic competition. This may sound ironic, but she does have a point. Indian academics is a whole other ballpark of stress, which is incomparable to what we experience here in the States.
When my Mom was studying in India, she told me there were only two paths: to be a doctor or an engineer. The schooling system there is much tougher, to the point where even getting an 80 is considered magnificent. Students’ grades on tests are even publicly ranked for all to see, which is very problematic, as seen in the popular Bollywood movie “3 Idiots.” To even qualify to be doctors or engineers, thousands of students must take statewide tests with a 1% selection rate.
Things may have changed in the decades since she completed her studies, but this same type of competition is still seen today all over the country. But to even qualify for these tests or consider applying to be a doctor or engineer, students must have access to proper schools in which they can be cultivated and taught appropriately. “Out of 100 students, 29 percent of girls and boys drop out of school before completing the full cycle of elementary education, and often they are the most marginalized children” (UNICEF page on Indian education). This figure may even be understating the state the terrible schooling system is in India. The 29% of students who cannot even make it to graduation can thank the lack of infrastructural development, lack of trained and qualified teachers, mismanaged curriculum, child labor, and just all around negligence towards lower caste children.
Hearing about these poor, underprivileged children who live in the Indian slums has struck a chord in many organizations such as UNICEF, who now branch out to help these students in a way. However, to see what these children actually experience in the classroom is a whole different experience. This brings me to one of my most memorable moments from the trip to India I took with my parents many summers ago, that was a sort of culture shock for me.
My family went to stay with my grandparents for about a few weeks, then spent the rest of the month traveling around to the Taj Mahal, Delhi, Hyderabad, etc, to sightsee. My grandparents are of the middle class in India, not abiding by any caste expectations as they are practicing Christians. They lived in the peaceful suburbs of Hyderabad, a few minutes from the heart of the city.
Unbeknownst to me, my mom had reached out to a local school earlier to give a donation and even substitute as a teacher for a few hours. And so, we drove on my Grandfather’s scooter to this small government school, which matched the lack of developed infrastructure mentioned previously. I was a little nervous to meet these kids because 1.) I cannot speak the native language, Telugu, but I can understand it, and 2.) I was afraid of being judged for being “too American” from my accent. Now that I think back, it was stupid for me to be insecure after being greeted with the friendliness the students gave my mom and I when we arrived. In India, all school subjects fall under one main teacher, and individual classes can have up to 60 students each. Luckily for me, we had only about 20 English-proficient kids waiting for us to teach. The classroom was just as I had imagined, open air with straight wooden desks, a small fan, and a huge chalkboard up front. The kids were about 8-10 years old holding small bags that could maybe carry three books at most. They immediately took to my Mom, laughing and smiling at her jokes, since she had taught as a professor in India before, and just knows how to talk to children. She taught them fundamental math skills that we may learn at the ages of 5 and 6 here and slowly worked their way up. The students met every problem with much enthusiasm, and although some may have been a bit advanced for their curriculum, they handled everything we threw at them with ease.
At their same age, I was pulled into my school’s gifted program and was given that title of being “smart,” when in reality, all of these students could outperform me academically and qualify as well, had we been born on the same playing field. The atmosphere was so different yet similar compared to an American classroom, which is hard to put into words.
Nonetheless, all of the preconceived ideas about lower caste students had been erased from my mind after this afternoon. Many look down on these kids thinking they are troublesome and good-for-nothing, since it is thought many only attend to take advantage of the lunches there, but the genuine enjoyment on the faces of our students made me question how valid these stereotypes really were. The very last thing these children are is “pitiful” or some charity case. They are bright humans who could have futures ahead of them, and for their rigor, I have incomprehensible respect for them. Maybe if even 10% of these schools had better curriculums and teachers who wanted to challenge and foster their students, big changes could be made in the youth there. This is much easier said than done, as everything boils down to the government and the caste system, and reforming an entire education system is very difficult. But after that personal experience, I felt a pull to go back again and start a change, and to even get an option to redo that afternoon in the school. I felt a pull to be able to sit down with the kids and teach them as much as I can, to give them a taste of what learning is like here, not out of pity, but to meet their enthusiasm with the same energy.
Sometimes, I ask myself, "if even one of those kids were in my shoes, privileged with the countless opportunities and luxuries we have here, how far could they go?" Every now and then, I go through periods of zero motivation, worrying about how all of my work now may be meaningless one day, and how I might not get into the college I want and become a physician. But even without half the opportunities I have, there are those kids that do have that motivation and have the drive to become something greater, despite their circumstances.
Thinking about this, I am able to keep myself going and calm my anxiety. Ignoring the crushing competition here and the fear of failure, I can keep myself motivated and focused. My parents brought me here for success, so I will make the most out of what I have and show appreciation every day, I have realized that I should be able to work the hardest I can to my own standards, not anyone else's, to feel no regret. Titles like “the dumb Indian” can be discarded, and my self worth will not be reduced to a single word. I can proudly call myself by my name and cherish my heritage, not worrying about society’s stereotypes, as they mean nothing in the face of my own success one day. With this mindset, surely, I will get that redo of the afternoon in India.